Identity theft is an epidemic. It is the number one reported consumer complaint of the Federal Trade Commission. According to the Javelin Strategy and Research, roughly 10 million Americans were the victims of identity theft in 2008. Identity theft can deplete your bank account and cause serious damage to your credit score. An "ITRC Aftermath Study" reports that it can take an estimated 5,840 hours of your time to resolve. (To help you avoid identity theft, read Identity Theft: How To Avoid It.)
TUTORIAL: Credit Cards

Most of us are familiar with the usual ways to protect our identity, such as not giving out your Social Security number, protecting online financial accounts with anti-virus, anti-spyware, firewalls and creating effective passwords. What you may not realize, though, is that your identity can be stolen in some places where you'd least expect.

Car Loan Application
According to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, auto loan identity theft is twice as high as any other form. It seems to be one of the easiest areas to steal your identity. In fact, you give them all the information they (the thieves) need. This paperwork is easily obtained from a salespersons desk, or the trash.

If you test drive a car, most sales staff will ask you to fill out a sales, or intent to purchase, form. They will tell you, earnestly, that this form is for their records, to assist you in finding the right vehicle for your needs, or for their monthly sales sheet, all of which could be true. If you decide not to purchase the car, what happens to that information? Or if you fill out the loan application, which requires more information, how is that information safeguarded by the dealership? Both forms ask for your name, address, date of birth and phone number and that is enough information to steal your identity.

The advice of identity theft experts is to ask how they dispose of the paperwork. Many dealerships, after 30 days, trash those forms if the customer does not return, by simply tossing them into the garbage. That is easy pickings for identity thieves. Most people who shop for cars are in a financial position to purchase; meaning they potentially have better credit and can obtain credit easier, and so can the identity thieves. You should refuse to fill out this form unless you are purchasing the vehicle. (If you are applying for a car loan, check out 6 Ways To Cut The Cost Of Your Car Loan.)

The Pharmacy
One would not usually think of having their identity stolen at a pharmacy, but consider the information you have on file at your pharmacy – name, address, date of birth, phone number, medical insurance information and employer information. If your health insurance covers prescriptions and your prescription information, the pharmacy sometimes even has your social security number.

There have been numerous cases of identity thieves pilfering information from waste baskets at the pharmacy, taking those innocuous "pharmacy information sheets." Those sheets contain a wealth of personal information that is used to create a new identity, or fill additional prescriptions using your name that can be sold on the "street."

Doctor's Office
Stealing your medical information can potentially be more serious than your identity, particularly if you are ever hospitalized and the medical history available to the physicians isn't yours – this type of theft could endanger your life. It seems those individuals who have chronic medical conditions are at greatest risk. They are the ones who are frequently in a doctor's office, see several specialists and visit multiple medical facilities where their personal and medical information passes through numerous hands.

There are a few things you can do to help protect yourself. When you fill out the requested forms, at a physician's office, do not put your social security number on the form. There is no reason the office needs this unless you are requesting some type of "loan" from them. Ask them who has access to the information. If you have to be transported or sent to another doctor's office, ask to carry your medical information personally. Much of today's information is sent via the Internet. Ask them what protections they have in place to safeguard your information. Many have installed firewalls, and other software, to help insure patient information safety, but many have not.

If any medical facility, or physician, that you don't recognize calls you asking for personal or medical information, question them. Ask who they are, why they need the information, what doctor referred them and if they have a number where you can call them back with this information. Verify all information. If you access your medical information online, read the facility's privacy policy, they are all required to have one posted. Read what information they collect, who they share their files with, ensure they are an encrypted site, and be very careful if you are accessing those files from a Wi-Fi location where your computer may be vulnerable to hacking. (For more on health services, read How To Choose A Healthcare Plan.)

Mortgage ID Theft
The house you're living in may not be yours. An identity thief will obtain your personal information and use it to obtain a home loan, or an equity loan, without your knowledge. An equity loan gives the criminal quick cash. Using the value of a home is one of the easiest ways to secure cash.

There have been cases where the thieves have actually sold the victims home while they were still living in it, and were unaware they'd been victimized. Second homes and vacation homes are especially vulnerable to this type of identity theft, as it allows the thieves a longer period of time to get cash out of the property, or sell it, before the real owner is aware there is a problem. All homeowners should routinely check with their county record's office to ensure that their information is correct. If you receive any paperwork regarding your mortgage, a transfer of your mortgage or lender, don't toss it out, pay attention because it may be the only warning you get until a new owner is knocking at your door.

Cyber Greeting Cards
As we head into the holiday season, a new method of hacking into your computer is lurking in those adorable greeting cards sitting in your e-mail. It blinks at you saying you've been sent a greeting from a "friend."

You open it and are directed to a site where malware will invade your computer, or you will be asked to "install" software to "play" the card. When this happens, malware, that could potentially destroy your computer or allow an identity thief access to your personal data to steal your identity, is unleashed. Unless the name of a real person that you know is attached to the greeting card, do not open it.

The Bottom Line
There is no way to protect your identity 100% of the time. Often, what happens to your personal information is completely out of your control. The only option you have is to be constantly diligent in tracking your information, protecting your information and asking where that information is going. You have the right to ask, you have the right to know and you have the right to withdraw that information if you feel uncomfortable. (To help you reduce your risk, see our Identity Theft Checklist.)